I remember reading Christianna Brand’s mystery novels many years ago & I especially enjoyed her masterpiece, Green for Danger. This classic mystery is set in a hospital during WWII & when a patient dies unexpectedly on the operating table after an air raid, the staff of the hospital come under suspicion. It was made into an excellent movie (which I enjoyed watching again last weekend) starring Trevor Howard, Leo Genn, Megs Jenkins & Alistair Sim as Inspector Cockrill. Green for Danger is the only one of Brand’s mysteries that has stayed in print so it’s very exciting that Open Road Media have released a large selection of her books as e-books.
Heads You Lose is the first book in the Inspector Cockrill series. Set in an English village in winter, it concerns a country squire, Stephen Pendock, known as Pen, & his guests. Lady Hart & her granddaughters Venetia, now married to Henry Gold, & Francesca, are old friends of Pen & have been visiting him since the girls were children. When they arrive on a snowy afternoon, just in time for tea, they meet Grace Morland, a neighbour of Pen’s who often intrudes on his good nature to paint views of the church tower from his terrace. Grace Morland is a foolish woman, tactless & spiteful. She’s in love with Pen, but, completely unaware of his indifference,she sees his politeness as evidence of deeper feelings.
Francesca Hart is in her early 20s, beautiful, spoilt & a little hard-hearted. She has been pursued by many men but seems to love her dachshund, Aziz, more than any of them. James Nicholl, another neighbour now on leave from the Army, is also staying in the house. He’s in love with Fran but hasn’t declared himself. On this visit, however, everyone’s emotions will be stirred up. Pen has realised that he’s in love with Fran but worries that she sees him only as an old uncle. James sees Pen’s feelings & is desperate to tell Fran how he feels before Pen can propose to her but a secret of his own makes him hesitate. Grace Morland is jealous of Fran & is particularly scathing about a fashionably daring hat that Fran has just bought & is showing off. Grace says she wouldn’t be seen dead in a ditch in such a hat, realises how rude she’s been & takes her leave. As Pen walks Grace home, she becomes more & more hysterical about Fran & the hat but Pen seems oblivious to everything but his own thoughts. Later that night, however, Pen’s old butler, Bunsen, returns from a visit to his ailing sister & finds Grace Morland dead in the ditch near the driveway wearing Fran’s silly little hat on her decapitated head.
Inspector Cockrill arrives to investigate the murder. He’s well-known to everyone in the house, being a local detective known affectionately as Cockie. The manner of Grace’s death is shocking but just a year ago there had been another murder. A young housemaid was found in the woods, decapitated by a scythe. Her murderer was never found. Could it be the same person? Inspector Cockrill is dubious because the detail of the hat seems to limit the suspects to the six people in the house that afternoon & Bunsen, who knew about the hat & was out of the house at the crucial time. Grace Morland’s cousin, actress Pippi Le May, had arrived to stay with Grace on the night of the murder & she thinks that Grace had discovered something that upset her on that night.
At first, everyone at the tea party seems to have a alibi as the house was locked securely & only Pen & Bunsen had keys. But, Pippi says she saw a stranger lurking in the woods when she arrived & James had convinced Fran to meet him outside after everyone had gone to bed so the alibis become shaky. The tension is increased by a phone call to Inspector Cockrill threatening Fran’s life & then another murder takes place. Another decapitation & this time the body is found in the summer house with no footprints on the snow outside.
Heads You Lose is a classic Golden Age mystery. A snowbound village in the depths of winter, a closed circle of suspects with secrets to hide & a detective determined to get to the truth. The murders are a little more gruesome than you might expect in a classic mystery but all the elements are there for a very satisfying plot with enough twists & turns to keep the reader guessing. I admit I was completely wrong about the murderer’s identity but then, I rarely get that right. It was a real treat to be able to revisit Christianna Brand’s work courtesy of NetGalley.
Open Road Media, who are republishing Christianna Brand, are featuring women crime authors on their website in March. Some of the authors published by Open Road include Dorothy L Sayers, Anne Perry, Laura Lippman, Susan Dunlap & Jane Langton, writers whose books I’ve enjoyed reading very much over the many years I’ve been a mystery fan. There’s more information & a video featuring some of their authors on their website here.